By Edwin Jahiel

MUSIC TEACHER (Belgium-France, 1988) ***
Directed by Gerard Corbiau. Cast: Jose van Dam, Anne Roussel, Philippe Volter, Sylvie Fennec, Patrick Bauchau, Johan Leyson. A Belgian-French co-production released by Orion Classics. In French with subtitles. 100 minutes. Rated PG.
Here is as bizarre a movie on music as was ever made. Mahler, Verdi, Bellini, Mozart, Offenbach, Schubert, Schumann, Puccini, the glorious voices of Jose Van Dam, Dinah Bryant and Jerome Pruett are the stars of the MUSIC TEACHER, a film about the love of music that is intended for the rather narrow public of practicing musicians and serious lovers of "serious" music.

For this specialized segment, the film is enchanting. For the more general movie public, this Franco-Belgian production, "qua" movie, has a plot and an execution so romantic that they approach camp and at times ludicrousness. Yet it has won many prizes in the festival circuit and was a Best Foreign Language Oscar nominee in 1989.

The music teacher himself is the extraordinary bass-barytone Jose van Dam (born 1940) who has one of the world's most blessed voices. He plays Joachim Dallayrac, a superstar singer who is at his peak in the early years of the 20th century. Suddenly and inexplicably, he stops performing.

In the splendor of a country estate, he devotes himself to training a single pupil, young soprano Sophie. Worried that the professional relationship might develop into a personal one (as it sometimes happens between teachers and pupils or psychiatrists and patients), Joachim finds a safety valve: he takes on a second student, Jean, a young street-thief who sings as he steals. The improbable recruiting will later lead to a predictable affair between the pupils.

More outlandishness. Hardly a year later, both young people are ready for the public. They make their debut at the palace of Prince Scotti. He used to be a fine singer and Joachim's arch-rival, had lost his voice competing with Joachim, who has it in for him) Now the Prince teaches and launches promising singers. Ghoulishly elegant, Scotti holds international vocal contests in his manor.

This is merely the skeleton of a story where brooding people and landscapes, sumptuous sets and clothes, arty closeups of people and of artifacts -- all superbly shot -- intensify a near-Gothic romanticism in a mix of operatic plot, melodrama, dark secrets and mysteries.

Inside and around this framework, the multiple musical elements are so gorgeous that they enchant your ears and uplift your spirit.

The beautiful sounds are put into such dramatic contexts that they more than compensate for the picture's wild and woolly side. At the same time we get utterly fascinating music lessons in which the teacher imposes an iron discipline on his students and instills in them techniques as well as musical-ethical principles.

The mid-section is rather slow, but when get to the competition, there is a terrific musical duel between the Prince and the absent Joachim, via their surrogates/proteges. At this point the movie also becomes a musical thriller, with wonderful elements of suspense and surprise.

You watch tricks (very real ones in the world of music) on how to try to unnerve rivals, how to attempt to handicap and sink the "enemy." At the same time there develops a battle between good and evil, with the good guys having a great trump-card up their sleeve.

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